Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra sounds like a tributary of Chicago’s avant-jazz traditions. In 2005, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jazz Institute of Chicago commissioned the multidisciplinary artist and trumpeter for a concert at Pritzker Pavilion, which inspired him to assemble a supergroup of the city’s bleeding-edge creative musicians. Together, they bundle the cosmic trippiness of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the large-group intricacy of the AACM’s Great Black Music Ensemble, and the coolly sophisticated experimentation of the 90s postrock scene that coalesced around Chicago label Thrill Jockey (which released Exploding Star’s first two albums). The members have hung together in a loose constellation ever since, even as some core players, including guitarist Jeff Parker, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and Mazurek himself, have left Chicago.
On March 31, the Exploding Star Orchestra will release their latest album, Lightning Dreamers, on International Anthem. To celebrate, they’re making their first hometown appearance in five years. A nine-piece iteration of the ensemble that consists of Mazurek, Mitchell, keyboardists Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, drummers Chad Taylor and Gerald Cleaver, and narrator and sampler maestro Damon Locks will perform in the Adler Planetarium’s domed Grainger Sky Theater amid enveloping projections of Mazurek’s abstract video art.
Lightning Dreamers was mostly recorded in September 2021 in a West Texas border town near where Mazurek now lives. After beloved experimental trumpeter Jaimie Branch passed away last year, Mazurek dedicated the album to her memory and stitched in samples from a 2022 Exploding Star concert featuring Branch on synths. That became the basis for the album’s tour de force, the teeming, unabashed “Black River.” At first it sounds raw and writhing, but during a recitation by Locks a few minutes in, the heavens seem to open up. Sounds of the past and present mix freely until listeners can scarcely tease them apart. It’s beautiful chaos. Isn’t that the best any of us can hope for, during our too-brief planetary stay?
Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra Fri 3/24, 8:30 PM, Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. DuSable Lake Shore, $50, $30 early bird, all ages